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May 15, 2018

Vince Velasquez could be an indispensable piece of the Phillies rotation

Vince Velasquez is a very likable guy. He’s intelligent, articulate, self-reflective, almost to a fault, and healthy for the first time in about five years. So far in May, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander is 2-0, with a 3.27 ERA, with 16 strikeouts and 5 walks. 

The 25-year-old could be the missing piece to what is shaping up to be a very good Phillies’ starting rotation with Aaron Nola (6-1, 1.99 ERA), Jake Arrieta (3-1, 2.59), Nick Pivetta (2-2, 4.15) and Zach Eflin (1-0, 0.71).

And Velasquez knows it. He also knows he can’t be content. Overall, he’s 3-4, with a 5.05 ERA. He’s still sharpening and being attentive to learning. The only problem with Vince Velasquez, a very talented pitcher, is Vince Velasquez. And he knows that, too.

“It is frustrating, because we all know what we can do with our physical and athletic abilities and it’s a matter of laying it all out there in the field,” Velasquez said. “Sometimes you get too caught up into with what people are saying, or too caught up in our own actions sometimes. A lot of guys coming from the minors get too caught up with bad outings, and they wound up holding on to them. That carries over into the next outing. Then you’re dealing with the same outing as you had the last time.

“I messed the bed again, and I don’t want that mentality. It’s best that you clear up what just happened, and you take in what happened. At the end of the day, you want to go home with a clear mind and something brighter to look forward to the next day.”

Take for example Velasquez’s start against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, April 29. He was pounded for 6 runs on 7 hits over 4 innings in a Phillies’ 10-1 loss. After the game, Carlos Santana brooded in front of his locker staring at his bat, after going 0-for-3 and striking out once, while Velasquez was laughing coming out of the shower.

Santana’s attitude wasn’t wrong, nor was Velasquez’s. It was two different players venting a frustrating loss in two different ways.

Since then, Velasquez is 2-0, yielding 6 hits over 11 innings—one less hit than in the 4 innings he went against the Braves.

“I wasn’t going to drag that [bad start] with me,” Velasquez explained. “We live and learn every day and you have to find a way to make yourself better, or happier, or have more fun, find something to end the day on a good note. My father is very optimistic, and I hate how much optimism he has [Velasquez laughs], but it really creates an energy.

“You want to forget bad starts. You let them go, and it’s something I didn’t always do.”

Velasquez said his problem with the Braves has been utilizing his secondary pitches and throwing them for strikes. He’s giving up hits, and he’s okay with that, but he wants to offset hitters by changing speeds. In the future, Velasquez didn’t dismiss coming out of the bullpen, though for now, he likes and feels very strong in a starting role.

“I’m content on where I am now, and maybe the results aren’t what everyone’s expectations are, my job is to go out there and go 5-plus innings and keep my team in a position to win,” Velasquez said. “I’m swinging well, too, so I want to stay in the lineup. It’s just a matter of being more consistent with my secondary pitches, and throwing them for strikes.

“In my last outing [a 6-3 win over a formidable San Francisco batting order, in which he threw 12 strikeouts], my curveball was a solid pitch, which really helped me out. I got some groundballs and the change-ups are forcing weak contact here and there. I’m okay with giving up hits, I want to force groundballs and force weak contact. That’s just how baseball is. I’m understand the ins and outs, and physically, I feel great.

“It’s why I don’t want to change my whole routine from a starting pitcher to a relieving role. I’m really content on how things are right now, and I’m content with how things are on the field as they are off the field. It’s benefitting me. I haven’t been hurt. I know what I need to do. I had a solid year in 2013, coming off of Tommy John surgery [on his right elbow].

“I had that surgery this offseason. I had that thoracic outlet syndrome, but it wasn’t really labeled thoracic outlet syndrome – they didn't have to remove my first rib or whatever. What I’m saying is the opportunity to bounce back and stay in the game and not have any injuries, I’m actually more thankful about that part than anything else. I can say this is the healthiest I’ve been in five years, it’s prolonging to that point, yeah.”

This has been an enjoyable first two months. 

Velasquez has really taken to Phils’ new manager Gabe Kapler and his positive-reinforcement approach. When Velasquez joined the Phils in 2016, they were 22-16 on May 15, sitting in second place and a game out of first in the National League East. That team went 4-10 the rest of the month and finished 71-91. Last year, the Phils were 14-21 on May 15 and going nowhere fast, as was Velasquez, whose season was lost due to surgery. On May 15 this season, the Phils sit with the best record—and probably the best team—he’s been on here, at 23-16, 1.5 games out of first place behind the 25-15 Atlanta Braves, who have the best record in the National League.

“Good things are happening here,” Velasquez said. “I was on that Astros’ team that won the wildcard game against the Yankees [in 2015], and lost to the [Kansas City] Royals [in the divisional playoffs] that wound up winning that year. The fact that we were actually better than that team in that series and we could have won, it sucks, but I think we’re there.

“This is a winning ball club. What we have now and what we have coming up. It’s going to be fun here for the next two, three, four years. I’m hoping to stick around and be a part of it. People want to see the fire. This is a team that can do some really good things and provide it.”

[UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that Velasquez did not have his rib removed as part of the procedure to correct his thoracic outlet syndrome.]

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